Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Forecaster

Pier proposals a contrast in tactics
By Kate Bucklin (published: March 01, 2007)
A rendering of The Olympia Cos.’ Maine State Pier proposal, with the city’s Ocean Gateway terminal at the right.

Courtesy The Olympia Cos.
PORTLAND – The developers vying for the right to develop the Maine State Pier have similar visions for the 88-year-old structure.

But they are taking different approaches to drumming up support.

Ocean Properties and The Olympia Cos. have each submitted $90 million redevelopment plans for the city-owned pier. Both include a hotel, office building, restaurant space, accommodations for cruise ships and park space.

Olympia is seeking a 75-year lease of the property and proposes $18 million in immediate repair work for the pier, which the city has concluded is failing after years of not being maintained. Olympia wants either tax increment financing for 20 years at $650,000 a year or an $18 million bond. The company estimates the redeveloped property would generate annual taxes of $1 million.

Ocean Properties agrees with the tax estimate and is asking for a 50 percent property tax return annually for 30 years. The company wants a 99-year lease and is offering $11 million for upgrades and work on the pier.

City Councilor Jim Cloutier, chairman of the Community Development Committee – which gets the first crack at the proposals – said this week he expects it will take months for the city to get a firm grasp of the intricacies of each proposal.

“They both off the basic policy we want to advance,” he said. “Better marine access, better public access and repair to the pier itself.”

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, also a member of the CDC, said he would focus on bringing services for islanders and land-based mass transit in to the mix.

Other councilors zeroed in on the numbers. Councilor David Marshall said he was disappointed both developers are asking for tax breaks to fix the pier.

“The whole point of going forward with rezoning was to not have to use taxpayer money to fix the pier,” he said.

Ocean Properties is a New Hampshire- and Florida-based company with roots in Maine. Its leader, Tom Walsh, runs hotels and ocean-based tourist attractions including Sable Oaks in South Portland and Harborside Hotel & Marina in Bar Harbor. The company is one of the largest private hotel owner-operators in North America, with several properties in Florida and Canada.

The Maine State Pier redevelopment would be the company’s first Portland project, according to Robert Baldacci, Ocean Properties’ vice president of development.

Olympia has offices a block from the pier, and developed the Hilton Garden Inn across the street, along with the Bangor Savings Bank building on the corner of Fore Street and Franklin Arterial. Headed by Kevin Mahaney, Olympia also developed the Doubletree Hotel on Congress Street and is constructing the addition to Custom House Square on Fore Street. Although the company has interests in New Hampshire and Virginia, much of its development has been in Portland.

It is not surprising that the approaches taken by Ocean Properties and Olympia follow a similar scale. Ocean Properties is a hotel giant of sorts, and has big backers including former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, a close friend of Walsh’s, according to Baldacci. Baldacci, of course, is a brother of Gov. John Baldacci. He is also Mitchell’s cousin.

The company has been interested in Portland for several years, Baldacci said, and has been discussing a “world-class” development on the Portland waterfront since the days of the late former City Manager Robert Ganley.

The company began designing plans for the pier and discussing those plans behind the scenes with city officials before the city started the rezoning process, causing some opponents to raise the issue of fairness.

Olympia got a later start on its proposal, waiting until the pier was actually rezoned by the City Council last October. During the four months the city’s Request for Proposals was out, Olympia met with community groups and residents, including Hilary Bassett of Greater Portland Landmarks and Nan Cumming of Portland Trails; business owners Kirk Goodhue and Cyrus Hagge; real estate broker Mark Malone; former mayors Anne Pringle, Nathan Smith and Barbara Vestal; and artist Alice Spencer. Waterfront advocate Nico Walsh, Jaime Parker of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization and Peaks Island resident Chris Hoppin also took part in meetings.

“We felt we did not have to look any farther than Portland for a great team,” said Project Manager Sasa Cook.

The design team was made up of Portland architects, engineers and landscapers.

Ocean Properties worked with TMS Architects of Portsmouth, N.H.; the Maguire Group, a Rhode Island-based engineering company that studied the pier previously for the city; and Yarmouth-based MRLD, a landscape company that has worked on several Portland projects.

The plan from Ocean Properties includes a 200-room hotel on land abutting the pier, a 119,000-square-foot office building on the pier, and a 12,000-square-foot seafood restaurant at the end of the pier next to a 20,000-square-foot public market. There is a 300-car parking garage off the pier and an 80-spot surface parking lot on the pier. Ocean Properties proposed a new pier be built for the tugboats that dock at the Maine State Pier.

Baldacci said the company would also run whale-watching excursions from the pier.

Compass Park remains intact and the company is proposing a rooftop public space at the end of the pier.

Baldacci said Ocean Properties is planning to bring a world-class development to Portland, along with 500 jobs. He said the cruise port included in his company’s plan is the centerpiece.

“It has a fully integrated marine focus,” he said. “We want to inaugurate ferry service linking Portland to Rockland and Bar Harbor.”

The anchor of the Olympia proposal, according to Cook, is a two-acre park planned for land abutting the pier. The park would be situated between a curved office building and the hotel, which Olympia has placed at the beginning of the pier, even though the city rezoning does not allow a hotel on the pier. Cook said Olympia plans to fill in under that part of the pier.

“The skirt wall is failing on the ferry side of the pier,” Cook said . “This would be a permanent fix for that.”

He said Olympia has discussed with local and state environmental agencies using fill as a fix for the failing wall, and the proposal “has legs.”

Olympia proposes a “village” at the end of the pier, with space for a restaurant, shops and a museum. There would also be open space there for fishing and public access to the water.

Cook said much of the proposal was designed with Portland residents in mind.

“Locals are going to benefit from this every day,” he said.

City staff will spend the next week or so reviewing both proposals, setting up site visits and interviewing the developers. The first city-sponsored public forum is scheduled for March 20 during a Community Development Committee meeting. The CDC eventually makes a recommendation to the City Council.

A public forum scheduled for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Public Library and sponsored by Portland Trails and Greater Portland Landmarks has been postponed because Ocean Properties is unable to send a representative. Baldacci said the company did not find out about the forum until Feb. 22 and neither he, Walsh nor Mitchell are available that night.

“We are trying to work out an alternative date,” Baldacci said.

Both proposals are available on the Internet. The Ocean Properties proposal is at www.tms-architects.com. Olympia’s proposal can be found at www.theolympiacompanies.com.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net.

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